South Africa slashes science budget, funds for giant radio telescope

The 64 dishes of MeerKAT will eventually be folded into the Square Kilometre Array.

South African Radio Astronomy Observatory

South Africa, struggling to contain economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, has cut $20 million from its budget for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The cut was part of a 24 June budget announcement in which the country, anticipating severely reduced revenues and an increased need for health and social spending, slashed its science budget for the year by 16%. The country’s major research funding agency, the National Research Foundation, also lost 10% of its government allocation, about $5.6 million (96.6 million rand).

South Africa and Australia are hosting the SKA, which when completed in the 2030s will have a total collecting area of 1 square kilometer. In a $1 billion first phase, the project aims to build some 130,000 small antennas in Australia, designed to collect low-frequency signals, while South Africa will host nearly 200 large, midfrequency dishes. Data from the linked arrays will be used to map the flows of hydrogen that fuel star formation and to study where and when the universe’s first stars fired up.

Construction—meant to begin at the end of this year—has now been delayed “well into 2021” because of the pandemic, says SKA Director of Communications William Garnier. Before construction begins, the seven countries intending to join the international treaty organization have to ratify a convention to make their commitments legally binding. So far, only three nations—Italy, the Netherlands, and South Africa—have ratified the treaty, with South Africa signing on 2 June. As a co-host, South Africa expects to pay about 14% of construction and operating costs, says Rob Adam, head of the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory.

The expansion of the country’s MeerKAT radio telescope is more likely to be delayed by international travel restrictions than the budget cuts, Adam says. MeerKAT, a 64-dish telescope array designed and built by South Africa, will be folded into the SKA. An extension project, in partnership with Germany’s Max Planck Society, will see another 20 dishes added to the telescope beginning in May 2021.

To limit spread of the novel coronavirus, South Africa began a strict physical lockdown on 27 March. But it has slowly been opening its economy even as confirmed cases of the disease spike. Its borders, however, remain closed.